A typical recent post on a Tumblr called the Jogging depicts a fried egg in the open disc drawer of a DVD player. Like all the images on the site, it is titled in the dry tradition of a museum or gallery display: “Egg Player, 2013. ”
This post, perhaps incredibly, attracted more than 9,400 likes and reblogs in its first 48 hours online. In fact, the Jogging racks up something like 80,000 such reactions a week — an amazing level of reader engagement with what looks an awful lot like nonsense.
So far, so weird. But not only is the Jogging evidently popular, it’s also taken quite seriously as art: Its creators recently received a Rhizome | Tumblr Internet art grant. (Rhizome is associated with the New Museum in New York; Tumblr, for the record, is owned by Yahoo.)
What explains the success of this weirdo art blog? Honestly, even after having been addicted to the site for the better part of a year, I still couldn’t say. So I got in touch with co-founder Brad Troemel, and he sort of explained. In short, I’d now describe the Jogging as a cross between conceptual art and the lulzy meme-spewing chaos of 4chan, seasoned by a healthy dose of BuzzFeed’s businesslike viral obsession.
Troemel and Lauren Christensen started the first version of the Tumblr in 2009. Troemel had become frustrated with the long-term, laborious conceptual projects he felt were necessary to make an art-world splash. He’d expend massive time and effort to create, say, a grid of 100 photographs expressing some idea, and then he would try to publicize the work through social media sites like Tumblr and Twitter. But his posts on those social networks were promptly “flattened,” as he puts it, “by the horizontal blur of all these other images — people’s lunch decisions, baby photos, everything else.”
Around the same time, he and Christensen were making objects out of the leftover scraps from traditional sculpture shows at a Chicago gallery. They’d photograph and distribute this reworked material and then, eventually, simply discard the physical creation. Realizing the image might be more useful than the object, “we cut the middleman out,” he continues, making virtual combines digitally: “We could release images of five sculptures a day, by adding Photoshopped elements to real photographs of real things.”
This decision to produce at high volume on Tumblr (which attracted some notice in the tech-art realm) was a response to social media culture, but it was also a statement about artistic practice. The traditional goal of the artist is the masterpiece, the singular work whose power simply cannot be denied, whose truth will transcend time itself. It’s a feat, like swimming to Cuba.
But maybe in the digital era, the artist could have a completely different goal: an epic flow of ephemeral works that engage in a postmasterpiece audience. “The name ‘Jogging' refers to a work flow,” Troemel says. “Constantly moving, and not really focusing on any one thing, but rather to just continue forward.” This always-on approach means practically everything is a potential creative prompt that can be acted on immediately; Troemel has called this athletic aesthetics — the practice of the “aesthlete.”
That notion gelled about a year ago, when the Jogging relaunched with a team of 16 artists pitching in on an absolute barrage of posts — more than 4,000 so far this year. This river of images, GIFs and videos sometimes responds directly to the meme culture erupting from collaborative forums like There I Fixed It and 4chan’s infamous /b/ board, where anonymous contributors riff on one another’s absurdly (and often darkly) humorous graphic inventions. Similarly, Jogging contributors respond to others' visual ideas, sometimes obscurely.
This is the version of the Tumblr that really took off — roping in what Troemel calls an “accidental audience” well beyond the art world. In keeping with a broader embrace of the Internet ethos of more, more, moar, the site encouraged submissions from its audience. It now gets dozens every day, a good chunk of which it publishes. “You throw enough stuff out there,” Troemel remarks, “and something will eventually go viral.”
The results can be disorienting. "Oprah Winfrey with Mel Gibson’s eyes" (Inkjet print) is part of a series of similar manipulations by Michael Senise. "Rineke-ing," submitted by Lindsay Dye, is an “InstaCollage” that simultaneously references Web fads like Tebowing and the portraiture of Rineke Dijkstra. Horizon, an image by Artie Vierkant, posted on July 21, seems to have sparked a whole series of images that treated “horizoning” as a meme. A JPEG by Justin Kelly carries the title "Elon Musk acquires largest air dancer manufacturer, rolls out his plans to expand at ted conference, proposes one in every front yard by 2015 (ideas worth spreading)." And so on.
How seriously should this stuff be taken? “Lawn Chair” by Derek Paul Boyle is basically a gag, as is the photo titled "Ai WeiWei introduces Macbook air"; the digital image "PUNK IS DAD" by Eric Fleischauer; and "Mouthshave" instructions by Daniel Calderwood.
On the other hand, I’ve kept coming back to the Jogging because every so often there’s something that strikes me as smartly irreverent, funny and irresistible. Like "Straightened out @ symbol" (digital image), one of many Jogging contributions from Joe Pearson. Or "KARA WALKER DECALS," by David Galperin, which depicts MacBook stickers in that well-known artist’s signature silhouette style. Boyle’s "revenge" (a nail in a hammer) seems to me poetically witty. I also like his concrete light bulb piece, "no idea," and "action painting" (latex enamel and paintbrush on canvas). And I love "Conceited," a sculpture depicting a security camera pointed at a mirror.
When I tried to get Troemel to pin down the connective aesthetic, he basically chuckled at my sputtering attempts to articulate the deadpan, pop-referencing something that I was attracted to. “Whatever you’re trying to describe,” he said, “I don’t want to kill it. I don’t want to say what it is.” Technically, he pointed out, the Jogging is an art collaborative that includes a Tumblr — as well as a book, gallery shows, an editorial spread. But he still wouldn’t really articulate the connective sensibility.
The most interesting aspect of Troemel's demurral is that he, like some VC-backed entrepreneur, seems largely fixated on the idea of growth. That Rhizome grant will go toward building a “content visualization system” that will basically make it easier for viewers to draw connections among the site’s morass of contributions — maybe by seeking to examine all the work that addresses destroyed technology, for instance. This should also cough up “analytics” that could guide future posts: “I’ll probably hire someone to make content that we know from the search terms will go viral,” Troemel suggests, so the Jogging will offer more content that will gather more followers who will generate more content.
It’s a little odd to hear a self-described artist toss around rhetoric about analytics and virality. But, Troemel argues, “Popularity isn’t just a matter of vanity — it’s a recruiting method. ... The more followers we have, the more art can be made.”